Saturday, 22 October 2016
James Nachtwey is a top American photojournalist. James Nachtwey is a top American photojournalist. Pierre Omidyar Wikimedia

JAMES NACHTWEY, a famed US war photographer, was awarded Spain’s prestigious Princess of Asturias Communications and Humanities prize on May 18 in Madrid. In a statement praising the 68-year-old, Princess of Asturias Foundation prize organisers classed him as one of the most respected and renowned photojournalists and war photographers in the world.

Nachtwey, who through his work was a first-hand witness of global tragedy and conflict, was praised, and described as an “insightful witness of human suffering” by the foundation. Furthermore, the organisers commended and admired the photographer’s professionalism, commitment and his ability to work in crises “without renouncing the ethical principles of the reporter or adorning what the camera sees.”

He was born in Syracuse, New York, and started working as a newspaper photographer in New Mexico in 1976. In 1980 he moved to New York to begin a career as a freelance magazine photographer and his first foreign assignment was to cover the conflict in Northern Ireland in 1981.

His career included his appointment as a contract photographer with the famous US Time Magazine since 1984, and he was a member of Magnum photo agency from 1986 until 2001. In 2003 he was injured in a grenade attack on his convoy while working in Baghdad, Iraq, but made a full recovery. The photographer was also present during the 9/11 attacks in New York City, and produced a well-known series of photographs about the catastrophe.

Throughout his career he has covered wars and conflicts in Central America, the Middle East and Africa, and explored the baser aspects of human existence under circumstances such as drug addiction, AIDS and crime. His brutal black and white depictions of war-torn communities and desperate individuals have become synonymous with the western media’s visual perception of war, famine, disease and suffering. 

Biographical accounts note that images from the Vietnam War and the American Civil Rights movement had a powerful effect on him and were instrumental in influencing his decision to become a photographer. The theme of suffering and injustice are prevalent in his stark and hard-hitting accounts. A statement from James Nachtwey on his website says: “I have been a witness, and these pictures are my testimony. The events I have recorded should not be forgotten and must not be repeated.”

The Communications and Humanities prize, worth €50,000, is one of eight Asturias awards handed out annually by the foundation, named for the Crown Princess Leonor, and is presented each autumn in the northern Spanish city of Oviedo. Other categories for the important award include sports, art and scientific research.

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